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April 27, 2005

Turner Whistler Monet at Tate Britain - Christie Davies finds beauty in the pollution of Victorian London

Posted by Christie Davies

Turner Whistler Monet
Tate Britain, London
10th February - 15th May 2005
Daily 10am - 5.50pm

The Turner Whistler Monet exhibition is about light, bright light, subtle light, faint light, and the triumphs of night and fog. Whether or not it establishes the direct influence of Turner on the two friends and associates, Whistler and Monet or whether Turner merely provided an inspiration for them is uncertain and does not really matter. It is enough that we are able to see the work of the three artists together and consider what they have in common.

Turner devoted himself to the study of light and its effects to the point where he knew as much about light in his particular sphere of competence as his famous contemporary Thomas Young did in his. Turner's skill with light comes across particularly well in Sun Rising through Vapour, Fishermen cleaning and selling fish, 1807, and in Mortlake Terrace: the seat of William Morris, esq., 1826.

Turner's "sun rising through vapour" is faint in the sky but bright on the water. It is the core of the picture and the fishermen are unnecessary except to provide a foreground. Who cares what they are doing? They could have been changing their boots or digging for bait or straining on the beach and washing themselves with their left hands like pious Brahmins, provided only that they wore the red caps necessary to Turner's composition. Fishing boats with sails sit close in and larger ships with rigging hang further out as required in the Romantic art of Caspar David Friedrich and more to the point because the sea gets deeper the further you are from the shore. The real reason the ships are here is to frame the sky with sails and to point it out with rigging. Everything aligns itself towards the sun, even the shoreline inclines towards it, yet everything is moved to the side to let the sun through. The clarity and detail of the foreground guide us to that central impression of a vapoured sun.

Turner's Mortlake Terrace has been wrongly sub-titled summer's evening yet the curators rightly refer to it as a scene of brilliant morning sunlight. Here are very British boats on a very British river, yet the sun is so bright that you are in Varanasi on the Ganges and know that you will have to retreat from that sun in half an hour's time. As you look at the picture you can feel the sweat begin to prickle on your back. The light from the sun spills over the balustrade and melts it and in doing so burns a dog black. The trees on the bank seem to be set close but as the bank curves round to where you stand the sun bursts through between them and overwhelms you. Once again Turner has used a real foreground to frame a dominant sun.

It might just as well be a raging fire as a sun, as in Turner's joyful The Burning of the House of Commons 16th October, 1834, 1835. Here the core of the painting is the blaze, the flames that devour the sky, the drifting smoke and the golden glowing river lit by the fire. Yet the hints of the buildings within the flames and the towers of Westminster Abbey behind are also necessary as is Westminster Bridge, faint and slowly rising away from us and then glowing and falling steeply towards the fire. The clever use of its slopes to flank the fire together with the exultant crowd on boats, bridge and bank watching it reveal Turner as a master of light.

It is, though, impossible to see why Ruskin saw truth and morality embodied in Turner's landscapes. Where are these high qualities? Why should they be missing from Whistler's nocturnes which Ruskin abhorred to the point where he accused Whistler of "Cockney impudence", perhaps the worst possible insult that can be offered to an artist, or indeed anyone else. The continuities between Turner and Whistler are clear and Ruskin's splutters sound exactly like those of the contemporary critics from whom he had tried to rescue Turner. They had disdained Turner's frothier compositions and said he had thrown handfuls of red, white and blue at a canvas. Turner's Rockets and Blue Lights, 1840, was the forerunner of Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold, 1875. Up with the rocket and see how much will stick. Neither in fact are particularly inspiring, except perhaps to a Gerty MacDowell caught up in roman candles and flashing her thighs and more at Mr Virag on the shore.

Whistler's other nocturnes are inspiring because he had mastered the art of using a narrow range of colour to portray a landscape only faintly seen. Nocturne in Blue, Grey and Silver - Chelsea, 1871, Nocturne in Blue and Silver - Cremorne Lights, 1872, and Nocturne in Grey and Silver - Old Battersea Reach, 1873-5, are all what they say they are, though to my eye with rather more of green. It is a calm night on a flat Thames with a dark and distant far shore, relieved by an occasional light. Sometimes something long and thin, a log like an Indian mugger, floats horizontally in the foreground, emphasizing the line of the water and sometimes a floating plant cuts across it.

This is a technique Whistler took with him to Venice as in Nocturne in Blue and Silver - the Lagoon Venice, 1880, where the muggers are replaced by gondolas. The resemblance is so striking that the journalists who compile Grauniad Unlimited Arts have managed to muddle them up and have labelled Whistler's painting of Chelsea, The Lagoon Venice. No doubt they will one day tell us that the darkly seen Morgan's Crucible Tower in Battersea with its hint of a white clock face and of a turret on the roof is a palazzo on the Grand Canal. My point is not to mock the unguarded guardianists who are an easy target but to indicate that it does not matter which particular landscape Whistler is painting; it is what he has abstracted from it that counts. It is a mark of Ruskin's narrowness of mind that he could not understand what Whistler was doing with narrowness of light or the nature of Whistler's truth.

Ruskin had all the blinkers of nineteenth century socialism and its successors. He did not understand art for a parallel reason to his failure to understand trade or banking or capital i.e. he was foolish enough to confuse virtue and road-mending. He transposed the absurd thesis of the labour theory of value into the equally absurd idea that the aesthetic value of a painting is based on the care, effort and painstakingness that has gone into its composition. Ruskin revealed his confusion about money-natured value when he complained that Whistler was asking two hundred guineas for "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face" at the exhibition of Nocturne in Blue and Gold, 1875. What had two hundred guineas to do with it or indeed the fact that it was sold for four times as much? Why should Whistler not "knock off" a masterpiece in a matter of hours and one which quite incidentally commanded a high price? The world is not a worthless little comprehensive school where marks are handed out for attendance and neat course-work.

In fairness it is doubtful whether Whistler did in fact knock things off. The nights spent sketching on a boat in the Thames can not be said to be effort-free however quickly he painted. Anyway, it is an irrelevance. What matters to us is that we possess Nocturne Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, 1872, an arch and pillar as high as if they were Japanese, darkly carving the night sky into three parts, the pillar cutting across the dark line of the shore and the mass of the river Thames. It is in fact a single colour differentiated only into lighter and darker. Two faint gold rockets from the amusement park are all that disturbs the sky.

It is easy to bracket Whistler's Nocturnes with Monet's paintings of the Seine near Giverny of the 1890s. The sinuous Seine slides around the trees and their reflections in the morning mist. One shape moves into another in a water world within a thin range of colours that is all that the light filtered through the mist will permit. It is no wonder that Monet and Whistler had such close ties. It is more difficult to see the Monet who painted the Seine in so many ways as the direct descendant of Turner.

It is, though, easy to see Turner's and Monet's kinship in their bridges of the Thames. Stand well to the left of Turner's The Thames above Waterloo Bridge, 1830-35 and look at it sideways and you will see the full glory of polluted London from the black smoke of the paddle steamer to the white and grey that obscure all but the faint outline of the arches of the bridge. Monet came here later, many years later, in 1870 to avoid being conscripted during the Franco-Prussian war and he again returned in 1899-1901 fascinated by the dirt. Where there's muck there's Monet; Monet was the man who adored the London smog and the "effets du brouillard". The French describe Monet as working on the poetry of fog and they should know.

Look at the crowded heaviness of Monet's Waterloo Bridge in Grey Weather, 1903. Behind are the chimneys, dirt, smoke and steam of London and in front the bright dark flow of the Thames. Monet has parted them with his clever use or placing of the bright, red and green splashes on the vehicles crossing the bridge. Here too in the exhibition is his painting of the low, flat geometry of Charing Cross Bridge on an Overcast Day, 1899-1900, with a train trailing its own grubbiness behind it and Charing Cross Bridge, Fog on the Thames where the bridge is faint and the sun a red spiral of raised paint casting a faint spiral of white in the water. Fortunately we shall never see their like again. Beauty has vanished with bronchitis. Only the seasonal affective disorder that renders wintering Londoners glum remains but perhaps it is mitigated now that latitude is no longer reinforced by particulates. Fog is at its best on canvas.

Monet may well in fact never have seen the best of Turner's depictions of the London fog but one hope's for Monet's sake that when he came in 1870 he saw Turner's masterpiece War, the Exile and the Limpet, 1842. It is a picture of Napoleon on the shore at St. Helena in his white breeks and that hat of his looking glumly with his arms crossed in front of him at the limpet by its pool. Behind him is a scarlet Turner sky, red with the blood shed in Napoleon's wars and a veiled sun. Behind Napoleon, faintly drawn, almost merging with the scarlet sky, is the familiar heroic outline of a stalwart British soldier guarding the French criminal. To the side are faint buildings on a cliff with ruins beneath, the remains of Europe. There will no doubt be speculation as to whether Napoleon feels trapped on a rock like the limpet or envies the little creature for being at home in its own milieu. What matters is that Turner painted this picture to mark the transfer of Napoleon's body to Les Invalides, the beginning of the road to the next outburst of Napoleonic aggression in 1870, the one which caused Monet to flee to London.

It is curious how even in an exhibition about light and impression, the curators are at times tempted to tell stories. As with Napoleon we see it again with in the case of Whistler's Wapping, 1860-4. In the foreground a red-haired whore, Mrs Abbott, sneers at a wooden faced sailor, stark as a cut-out from a recruiting poster for the navy, caught in a Heffernan trap. The curators suggest that the bearded man sitting with them may be a pimp, yet his thoughtful, intellectual face and fine attire suggest that he is a Victorian anthropologist come to do field work in what F. E. Smith later famously called the "festering slums of Wapping". The curators see it as a "modern" picture with "no moralising"; there is no hint of an awakening chord. Yet originally it did carry an un-Victorian yet Victorian moral, for Whistler wrote of an early version that the red haired Irishwoman in the picture was saying:

That's all very well my friend but don't think you're the first.
It would have been a nudge, nudge, wink, wink, know what I mean, man of the world, kind of picture for coarse merchants in stove-pipe hats and cigar-ashed weskits to enjoy. Whistler later reworked it to remove this risqué narrative and what we are left with is a picture about rigging not frigging. The woman sits in full light yet how little you can see of her; rather your eyes are drawn to the gap between the spars and ropes of the shipping of Wapping to a tall, thin red funnel. Impression conquers all.

All three painted the sordid Thames with its dirt and Houses of Parliament. All three painted sublime Venice. The way the curators have grouped the paintings according to setting perhaps emphasises the connections between the three great artists more than is strictly fair. It does not matter. Each is worth seeing on his own and the pleasure is more than tripled by seeing them together.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, 2004, and other analytical writings about dirt and pollution.


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